The Jeep Cherokee brand now has more than 40 years of history behind it and in many respects was responsible for transforming the SUV from a minor niche of the automotive market to a mainstream juggernaut. Following a decade during which the former DaimlerChrysler inexplicably re-branded the Cherokee as the Liberty in North America while keeping the original badge intact in the rest of the world, an all-new fifth-generation arrived last year with the old-school badge but some of the most radical changes yet to the skin and the platform.
The Cherokee itself has transformed several times during its run corresponding to changes in ownership of the Jeep brand. The first generation came along during the waning years of AMC’s independence but it was really the second generation known internally as the XJ that brought the Cherokee to prominence in the market. Debuting in 1984 after Renault had taken a controlling interest in AMC, the XJ Cherokee was the first Jeep with a modern unibody architecture in place of a body-on-frame setup. With some refreshes along the way, that generation stayed with us for 17 years before finally giving way to the Liberty.
Despite riding on two solid axles, the XJ Cherokee’s tidy dimensions, reasonable refinement (for the time) and absolute go anywhere capability mean it’s still a fan favorite 30 years later. It eventually spawned the larger Grand Cherokee which along with the Ford Explorer sent SUV sales into the stratosphere. The newest Cherokee preserves that all-terrain capability but executes it from a platform that has its roots in Fiat Italian engineering facilities. The engines are now mounted transversely and when only two drive wheels are in use, they are now the fronts instead of the rears.
The most dramatic aspect of the new Cherokee is its design. While the Wrangler and Grand Cherokee have clearly evolved from earlier iterations, the Cherokee is the most distinctive looking Jeep ever. Were it not for the trademark seven-bar grille, you’d probably never even guess it was a Jeep. The more upright stance of the Liberty has been supplanted with a very contemporary take on the lower-slung wagon style of the XJ. The most significant change comes to the front lighting setup. A pair of slim horizontal modules at each of the front corners look like tiny headlamps but are in fact just daytime running lamps and turn signals. The headlamps sit below surrounded by the bumper cover with fog lights set below that. The overall look is thoroughly contemporary and more I look at it, the more I like it.
Despite its architectural heritage with a Fiat platform, this Cherokee was designed to support the kind of off-road capability that Jeep customers expect. In profile, the short overhangs are a sure-fire signal that this thing is meant to crawl up steep grades and over huge boulders. The diameter of the rolling stock is also large enough for substantial ground clearance but rather than the 19-20 inch alloy wheels with low profile rubber that you find on most suburban crossovers today, the Cherokee runs on comparatively small 17-inch wheels. The 245/65R17 all-terrain Firestones have more than enough sidewall to absorb impacts from sharp trail rocks.
The Trail-Rated badges on the front fenders tell you that the Cherokee TrailHawk is running with one of Jeep’s most capable four-wheel-drive systems. In this case it’s the Active Drive II system that includes a four-wheel-drive low range and the ability to lock both front and rear driveshafts for maximum traction. The driver can also switch between Auto, Sport, Snow and Sand/Mud modes to optimize the torque distribution and stability control based on the driving surface. I didn’t have an opportunity to take the Cherokee off-road, but other reviewers have indicated that this is in fact a fully capable Jeep.
As with Cherokees and Liberties since the XJ, power for the new generation comes from a choice of either the aging 2.4-liter TigerShark four-cylinder or a 3.2-liter version of the highly regarded Pentastar V6. The normally aspirated V6 generates 271-horsepower and 239 lb.-ft. of torque. All Cherokees are equipped with the ZF-designed nine-speed transaxle that caused Fiat Chrysler so much grief and delayed initial shipments of the Cherokee for many weeks. FCA has had several software updates for the transmission control and I didn’t experience any issues with its behavior.
Despite weighing 4,000 pounds in four-by-four form, the V6 is able to tow 4,500-pounds, the most among midsize SUVs and crossovers. Cherokees powered by the Pentastar V6 get a standard automatic stop-start system the shuts down the engine when the vehicle comes to a stop and automatically refires it as soon as you release the brake pedal. I never experienced any delays with the restarts and the engine was always ready to go by the time I squeezed the accelerator. Restarts were always smooth and aside from the silence while waiting for the light to go from red to green, you’ll probably never notice that the system is functioning to reduce emissions and fuel consumption by eliminating idling.
While the Cherokee is very much designed to provide the sort of off-road SUV capability that Jeep buyers expect, it is in most respects very much like other contemporary crossovers. The dual solid axles of the XJ that gave way to independent front suspension on the Liberty are now completely gone with all four wheels independently supported now. The front end is suspended on Macpherson struts while a four-link layout enables wheel movement at the rear. While I didn’t do any real off-roading, I did traverse some nasty Michigan roads.
The combination of the well sorted suspension and the tall tire sidewalls resulted in a very comfortable yet controlled ride. On the flipside, the compliance provided by those tires meant somewhat less steering precision than you’ll experience on the low profile tires used on many of today’s vehicles. The Cherokee didn’t wander at highway speeds, it’s just not a track car. Most consumers will probably be just fine with the way it drives.
Another substantial difference from past Cherokees and Liberties is the interior. Like other contemporary FCA vehicles, Jeep has done an excellent job on the cabin materials with soft-touch finishes, a minimum of visible seams and nice large rotary knobs and switches for main controls. My tester was equipped with the UConnect 8.4 telematics system that includes navigation and support for several smartphone apps. In case you were wondering, this is the system that was recently hacked by Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek. Fortunately they notified FCA before publicising the problem and a software fix was ready when the story was published. This likely won’t be the last time we hear of such attacks and all vehicle owners of all brands will have to be vigilant about keeping vehicles up to date.
Whether you plan to ever go off-roading or not, the fifth-generation Jeep Cherokee is absolutely worth a look as an alternative to both traditional SUVs or soft-road crossovers. The front-wheel-drive four-cylinder starts at just over $23,000 and my well equipped Trailhawk tipped the scales at $36,869 with delivery. The EPA rates the fuel economy at 19 mpg city, 26 mpg highway and 22 mpg combined with my test car delivering 21 mpg.